May I Have This Book, Please? & Literary Links

May I have this book, please?

I am speaking of Two Way Mirror by Fiona Sampson, the new biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. When I read a review today in The Guardian, I was very excited. Oh, my God, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I said ecstatically to my husband. Could we go to the bookstore and pick it up?

Unfortunately, we could not, because it will not be published here till August. This happens so often. Why can it not be published at the same time as the UK version?

Well, I can always reread Barrett Browning. I have a pink copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems, a little the worse for wear for being in the mudroom for ten years. I paid 40 cents for this at the Planned Parenthood book sale.

Of course we all read Robert Browning, but Elizabeth Barrett used to be overlooked. And yet readers everywhere know the opening line of her famous sonnet:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Time to beat the gloom of February by reading some of her poems.


  1. Will Self is writing a series of essays on reading for Lit Hub. And I think you will be especially intrigued by the autobiographical bits in the first one, How Should We Read?

Raised by bookish but undisciplined parents, I always felt I had just about the best introduction to reading imaginable: my American mother’s modish novels and zeitgeisty works on psychology mingling on the shelves with my English father’s English canonical tastes and his motley collection of philosophical texts (many of which came from my autodidactic grandfather’s own extensive library). And there were plenty of other books as well—acquired by my brothers or me at second-hand stores and flea markets. Nobody was remotely precious about these volumes: they were there to be read not revered. And since my parents had also decreed—in order to inculcate us with their own bookish tendencies—that we could have no television, reading was pretty much all we had to do: there was no street life in leafy middle class English suburbia in the 1960s, unless you liked watching lawns grow.

2. This week, the TLS published a review of Dorothy Whipple’s Random Commentary, first published in 1966, ” an assortment of writings from note-books and journals,” and reissued by Persephone.

Are you a fan of Dorothy Whipple? Persephone has been reviving her novels for years. I have enjoyed some of them, though I am not a mad Whipple fan. I remember reading a more or less “Virago vs. Persephone” article (in the Guardian?), in which one of the Virago editors said they never crossed “the Whipple line.” Well, Whipple is middlebrow, but some of the Viragos are too.

Anyway, the reviewer says,

We first meet Whipple in the mid-1920s. After her first love was killed during the First World War, she marries her employer, Henry Whipple, the director of education for Blackburn. She also struggles to establish herself as a writer, failing to sell a short story for five years. Modesty regarding her writing abilities and gentle wit suffuse these diaries. Whipple repeatedly berates herself for not working hard enough. Procrastinating, staring out of the window, or poking the fire – anything but writing: “When I have time to work, I don’t want to. When I haven’t time, I want to”. Whipple begins new drafts before finishing previous versions. Working on one book, she always wants to be working on another; “shaping and polishing” is her favourite part of the writing process. When her first novel, Young Anne (1927), is accepted for publication, the relief is palpable: “I’m not lost any more”.

Have a great reading weekend, whether you choose Elizabeth Barrett Browing, Dorothy Whipple, or someone else entirely.

11 thoughts on “May I Have This Book, Please? & Literary Links”

  1. Hi Kat – I always enjoy your blog. Your help in choosing translations of Tolstoy and others have been very helpful to me!

    If you want a book only available in the UK…. have you tried Blackwell’s? Great prices and free shipping to the US. I get all my UK editions of Penguin Modern Classics from them …..

    Good luck on the Browning. I have Aurora Leigh on my shelf but haven’t read it yet. Looking forward to it and reminded thanks to your post.


    1. I have heard of Blackwell’s but have never been there. Coincidentally, I recently read J. I. M. Stewart’s The Gaudy, and the narrator goes to Blackwell’s to look for his own plays–but meets someone he knows and has to pretend to be looking for a rival’s.

      I certainly will visit the website. Thank you!

      1. Yes, they have several stores throughout the UK, but have had a presence in Oxford since at least the 1800s. Good luck! I think you will be happy to see that the Browning bio is readily available and you won’t have to wait. 🙂
        It is interesting… you may have seen reviews of the Tove Ditlevsen “Copenhagen Trilogy” of memoirs. I ordered a Penguin paperback edition and had already read it by the time they released the hardcover here. Not sure how that works, maybe copyright stuff like what happened with the newer Proust translations.

        I spend lots of money at local used and independent bookstores, so I don’t feel too guilty about getting these beautiful Penguin editions sent to me from across the pond. 🙂

        1. You have to get your Penguins somewhere! Anyway, I support the idea of shopping from British bookstores. Oddly, the Barrett Browning biography at Blackwell’s is cheaper than the price on the not-yet-published American edition. Very strange.

          The cover art of the American edition of Copenhagen Trilogy is ugly, so I would be more likely to buy the British Penguin. But I really should stop buying books. 🙂

          1. Blackwell’s prices are almost always good like that.

            As it turned out, a portion of my stimulus checks went to support the British economy, especially last summer when I first found Blackwell’s.

            I keep telling myself the same thing — got to slow down on buying books. But I feel a moral obligation to support local stores, and that is the only excuse I need. And I just love being at bookstores and if there I’m likely to find a book I like. It’s dangerous, but I don’t fight it too hard . I could have worse habits. I’m a true bibliophile — I like the cover and the smell of the pages and the feel of the binding softening as I break it in and I love already broken in used books and a name inscribed in them and the weight of a book in my hands and I prefer certain print fonts and the way the page looks. And I even like what’s written in them!

            The only probably is when you start having to think about moving to a larger house….

  2. Thanks so much for your excitement about the book! Yes, it’s published later in the US because it’s a different publisher there – W.W. Norton in the US, Profile in the UK. Each of whom have their own schedules – you can imagine how complex it is for me as the author!- and yes slightly maddening too because all the lovely national reviews over here (and they have been lovely, I’m so delighted) count for nothing when it comes our there. But I *really* hope you enjoy the book. It’s 3 years of my life spent in close quarters with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and naturally I feel passionate about her! She has even finally supplanted Mary Shelley in my biographical heart!

    1. Fiona, thank you so much for stopping by my blog! A few years ago I became fascinated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning when I read Yopie Prins’s strange little book, “Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of Tragedies,”
      and learned about EBB’s love of reading and translating Greek. I do love EBB’s poetry.

      I should have realized that different publishers don’t coordinate their efforts. The internet confuses readers like me: we read reviews all over the place! I am sure your three years was well-spent and look forward to reading the book.

      I don’t know much about Mary Shelley,. You’re choosing all my favorite Victorians.

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